“Unheard Tokyo” and “Unheard Kyoto” are two installments in the ongoing series “Unheard Cities,” where I investigate the acoustics of social space by interviewing residents of large cities with the question, “What is your favorite sound or sound atmosphere in your city?” For many people, this question is difficult to answer as the sounds one associates with living in a city are often not pleasant. It is hard to think of a sound one likes, let alone a favorite sound. Most people in cities try their best to shut out as many sounds as possible.
The “acoustics of social space” (in the sense that the French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre defined social space) is what I refer to as the process by which people relate to their environment through sound — both in a physical and psychological sense, as well as in the context of the way sound delineates one’s place in the social structures of a city. The answers to this question not only reflect how people think and feel about their environment but take me on a search through the city in search of the “favorite sounds.” Each interview is recorded in the person’s native language and then the sounds are found — in some cases not — and also recorded. On my way looking for these sounds I learn about the cities through the interviewees’ ears, their voices guiding me through huge urban areas and honing me in on private places. On the way to these places I stumble across others, which may become my favorite sounds or which disclose to me the inner workings of a city, observing its people and places and the ways sound reveals or obscures the social space of a city.
From June to October 2012 I was living in Kyoto with my family as a fellow of the US-Japan Creative Artists Program. I was interested in juxtaposing Tokyo and Kyoto through sound, as these two cities seemed to lie at the most extreme poles of modern Japanese urban culture. Kyoto is still very traditional in many ways. Not only are there numerous temples and shrines, but traditional Japanese residential houses pre-dating World War II can still be seen. Kyoto is also widely considered to be one of Japan’s most “liveable” cities, due to its relatively small size (in comparison to much larger cities like Osaka and Tokyo), its grid work layout (which makes it easy to navigate the city on foot) and the propensity of nature very nearby (surrounded by hills with a river running right through the center of the city). Tokyo, on the other hand, has almost none of these qualities (though, of course, it has others) and can be overwhelming at certain times of the day in certain areas of the city due to the sheer mass of humanity circulating there. Tokyo would be the classic example of the “no favorite sound” city. A place where the Walkman was conceived, perhaps more as a tool for survival than entertainment. I was therefore very curious to hear how residents of each of these cities related to the sound they moved through each day.
n each city I interviewed eight people. In Tokyo, five of the interviewees named what one could designate as “noise” (in the sense of a sound that is widely considered by most people to be irritating) as their favorite sound: this included traffic, rush-hour subway stations and crowded city streets. In Kyoto, on the other hand, these sounds came less to the fore. I was surprised to discover that the Kyoto residents often referred to the sound of a human voice: a Buddhist priest chanting, a recording of a Buddhist priest giving a lecture in a temple, the sound of one’s mother speaking (as an example of the sound of a Kyoto dialect which is slowly vanishing), a young woman working at the cash register in a convenience store shouting out “thank you!” In Tokyo many of the sounds people chose came closer to sound environments, rather than single sounds. This represented for me the density of Tokyo’s sonic topographies: the idea of a single sound is almost absurd, it is very difficult to experience this, even late at night or very early in the morning. Kyoto, with far fewer residents and nothing of the density of Tokyo, makes it possible to hear singular sounds. And this reflected the Kyoto residents’ answers.
In addition to these favorite sounds revealing hitherto unrevealed layers of a city’s inner-workings, I feel too that the sound of the interviewees’ voices also divulge a sense of the city in which they live. I provide no translations for the interviews. Not only is it interesting to surmise, based on the recorded sound coupled with the voice, what the interviewee is answering but I feel that the voices are also sounds of the cities themselves, carrying with them a quality inseparable from the people these voices belong to, as these people are inseparable from the cities in which they live.
People interviewed for "Unheard Tokyo" (in order of appearance):